Night prowlers

The greatest obstacle to painting nocturnes is convincing yourself that you want to go back out after supper.

Linda DeLorey painting a nocturne at Rockefeller Hall. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson)

I’ve been teaching at Schoodic Institute for a long time. Every year, I check the moonrise schedule and determine whether we’ll get a full moon for a nocturne. It seldom seems to work. The last time our schedule aligned, the moonrise over Arey Cove was brilliant, but the mosquitoes were ferocious. We were driven off long before our canvases were covered.

(Before I taught Sea & Sky at Schoodic, I taught it in Rockland and then Belfast. This is before we all had cell phones with flashlights. One year, Sandy Quang got lost and fell over a bluff. Luckily there was beach below.)

A late-night critique session with Rebecca Bense and Jennifer Johnson.

We’ve always done this workshop in August, when the days are long. This year, it’s in October, because Maine’s COVID-19 regulations made it impossible for out-of-staters to come in without quarantine in August. That means it’s dark by 6:30. Walking back from the Commons in the dark, we realized that Rockefeller Hall would make for smashing nocturnes, with or without moonlight. It’s a very safe location, since the offices are closed at night.

The greatest obstacle to painting nocturnes is convincing yourself that you want to go back out after supper. It sounds like a brilliant plan at breakfast. After you’ve already painted for eight hours, and maybe had a glass of wine, the idea of dragging your stuff back out in the dark sounds awful. Of course, there are more opportunities for mishaps. Brushes drop into the grass and roll silently away. Nocturnes are unfair to watercolorists, who fight the night mist that keeps their paper saturated.

My students are used to starting with value studies, so painting at night isn’t such a shock to them.

For me, it’s easier to get up at 2 AM and paint. Even so, you then have the challenge of leaving your warm bed at an unnatural hour. Either way, if you persist through your own resistance, you’re in for a treat. The air is fresh and cool; the commonplace becomes beautiful and mysterious.

I’ve given up using a headlamp for nocturnes; I find they blind me as they flicker back and forth. Instead, I brought enough rechargeable book lights to share with my students. My students have been endlessly schooled in value studies, so they took to the limited color range of nocturne paintings immediately. In general, there’s no color in the night sky except inky blackness and the color of any lights. Under a door lamp or inside a window, you will sometimes see a short burst of color, but it’s passing and brief.

Most of my intrepid band of painters, less Jennifer Johnson, who took the photo. That’s Beth Car, me, Jean Cole, Ann Clowe, Rebecca Bense, Carrie O’Brien, and Linda DeLorey.

“Prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” my monitor Jennifer Johnson says. This year all my students are from the northeast, so they know what extensive array of clothing is suitable to October. It can be sunny and beautiful one day and sleeting (or worse) the next. I’m, as usual, far less judicious, since I don’t really believe in winter. I capitulated to the point where I brought long pants, but I haven’t needed them. I’m still in capris, sandals and a linen painting smock.

Me, demoing. (Photo courtesy of Ann Clowe)

October is always the most beautiful month in the northeast and the weather has been fine. It’s foggy in the morning, because the sea is warmer than the air. “I’d love a demonstration on painting fog,” Ann Clowe told me. I love painting fog, so I enthusiastically set up to comply. Unfortunately, the fog burned off too soon, and we had another pristine autumn morning, surrounded by the myriad colors of Autumn on every side. It’s cooler here than it is in August, but most importantly, the ever-present madding crowds are mostly absent.

I’m teaching my annual Sea & Sky workshop in Acadia National Park this week. After that, there’s Find Your Authentic Voice in Plein Air in Tallahassee, Florida, in early November, and a few more plein air classes in Rockport, ME. From there on in, it’s all Zoom, Zoom, Zoom until the snow stops flying.

Monday Morning Art School: Where is the “me” in that painting?

Every line we paint, if we paint it honestly, tells the story of us and our feelings about the subject.

Sometimes it rains, by Carol L. Douglas, available through Ocean Park Association.

My husband is a stylish bass player. He says that he seldom thinks about style; instead, it’s that space between what he is technically capable of playing and what he’s visualized. I recognize that the same thing is true in my own painting.

I never get into questions of style with my students. It’s ineffable. I once had a teacher who lauded the heavy lines in my painting. “It’s your style,” he said. Actually, I didn’t like it but I hadn’t learned to marry edges yet.

Jennifer Johnson rode up to Schoodic Institute with me yesterday; this is her fourth year at my Sea & Sky workshop. She’s learned to produce a competent painting in a reasonable amount of time. “But how do I put my own emotion, my own self, into my painting?” she asked me. I had to laugh. Her paintings are as lively and quirky as she is.

Tom Sawyer’s Fence, by Carol L. Douglas, available.

No two artists paint the same scene the same way. Coincidentally, most of my plein air class on Tuesday chose the exact same long view to paint: a majestic vista down Clary Hill’s blueberry barrens. Each painting was markedly different.

Every line we paint, if we paint it honestly, tells the story of us and our feelings about the subject. Style is not something you add into a painting; it’s a reflection of your personality.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t paint deeper subjects. I don’t paint boats just because they’re beautiful, but because they’re meaningful symbols of the human journey. But the essential self-expression happens not in the content, but in the paintwork itself.

Blueberry barrens, Clary Hill, by Carol L. Douglas. Available through Maine Farmland Trust Gallery.

I’ve noticed that artists—myself included—often want to obliterate the very things in our painting that are most honest and autobiographical. Our brushwork can feel crabbed to us even if other viewers see it as intense or lyrical. We want to make things that are smooth, refined, and loose even when we’re uproarious or unsettled.

Yet the painters we most admire are often the ones who were most self-revelatory. For every Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Seurat, Pissarro, Monet, or Manet, there were hundreds of other painters hanging around Paris whom we don’t remember. They trotted out carefully produced, well-designed, even stylish canvases that have no ability to move us today.

Any decent critic can tell you what makes a good painting. It’s harder to identify what makes a great painting, but I think it must include big concepts: tragedy, sublimity, beauty, ugliness, joy, terror. A masterwork is of course a product of its time, but to transcend that, it must tell essential truths that transcend time and place.

Mountain fog, by Carol L. Douglas. Available.

For those to be in your painting, they must be in you in the first place, and you have to be willing to be honest. I’ve learned to set aside paintings that irritate me and revisit them in the future; like Wildfire(which I wrote about here) they sometimes have the capacity to surprise me. This is why I discourage people from tossing ‘failed’ paintings too soon. Sometimes our conscious minds need time to catch up with our sympathetic intelligence.

None of this negates the importance of instruction, by the way. We all learned to write in cursive in the same way, but every person’s handwriting ends up so individualized that experts can determine when it’s forged.

I’m teaching my annual Sea & Sky workshop in Acadia National Park this week—two months later than its usual August date. After that, there’s Find Your Authentic Voice in Plein Air in Tallahassee, Florida, in early November, and a few more plein air classes in Rockport, ME. From there on in, it’s all Zoom, Zoom, Zoom until the snow stops flying.

Emotional content

What you think about and feel has a way of insinuating itself in your painting without any special effort on your part.

Wildfire, by Carol L. Douglas, oil on canvas.

I gave up deep thoughts around the time I had children. I very seldom paint topically. Although I admire the paintings of Daumier, Bastien-Lepage, Goya, and others who commented on the human condition, I don’t want to paint about current events.

I recently reviewed my plein air sketches from the past summer, consigning some to the slush pile, reserving others to be more fully developed. There is very little of it compared to prior years. I’ve been teaching a lot this year. My side-hustle threatens to engulf my main work. That seems to be the pattern for many working artists this year.

Nor do I think what I’ve done has been particularly inspired. My paint-handling is just fine, but the content seems somehow lacking. “Does the world need one more painting of a foggy morning at Owls Head?” I sighed as I pitched a study onto my slush pile.

The Dooryard, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas

The answer is, of course, yes. There’s an infinite need for the peace of the natural world, whether real (as in the wilderness) or artificial (as in art). I’m just not feeling it right now.

I recently pulled out an old painting of wildfire that I started several years ago. It was based on an experience in the Yukon, in an area frequently burned out by wildfires. We were on a narrow road circling down to a lake, surrounded by burned shells of spruces. The trees swirled around us in a kaleidoscope of destruction. I took photographs, but without the movement of the car, they were just dead images. Could I capture that sense of menace in a canvas, in a way that would compel a viewer? At the time, the answer seemed to be no.

My friend Martha lives in Napa. When I went to bed last night, she was again on evacuation alert. She’s already been evacuated once this summer. Fire came very close to consuming her home. She works in a winery that was shut down last weekend by the Glass Fire. Before she left the office, she texted us an image of flames climbing the hillside opposite their building. Although northern California can be a paradise, it’s been more like Armageddon recently.

Six Bucks a Pound, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas

Thinking of Martha, I reworked my wildfire canvas one more time. This time I have something I like, although it’s by no means a ‘beautiful’ painting. It has the circular motion of that ride, and the punch of dead trees. But mostly, it has an emotional content it lacked.

That’s true of the other paintings I’ve liked from this summer. The Dooryard speaks to my own sense of isolation—that’s my own bedroom with the light off. Six Bucks a Pound is as topical as I ever get; it’s a local lobsterman hawking his wares on Route 1. It’s more illustration than fine art, but if I didn’t paint it, who would?

Blustery, oil on canvas, by Carol L. Douglas

Then I have a moment when I just paint for the sheer joy it brings me. Blustery is one of those paintings. I’d finished my piece for Cape Elizabeth’s Paint for Preservation and set up a second canvas in the ferocious wind. The only changes I made in the studio were to repair the damage from its frequent trips airborne.

Today at 5 PM is my FREE Zoom workshop. While I’m not nervous, I must be keyed up, because I haven’t slept well for the past few days.

Join me with a glass of wine, a spritzer, or whatever else. We’re going to talk about studying painting. What should students expect to get from a workshop or class? What should teachers offer? Have you always wanted to try painting but been afraid of classes? Are you taking classes but want to get more out of them?

Join us for a free-ranging discussion, but you must pre-register.